On a steamy Oklahoma City evening, with Russell Westbrook by his side and hundreds of fans, friends and Thunder employees packed in front of him, Paul George shook the NBA.
“If y’all didn’t quite get it, let me say it again,” George said. “I’m here to stay.”
Indeed. It’s four years, $137 million for George to keep his Oklahoma address, per ESPN, with the fourth year a player option. The hints George dropped at his exit interview in April, about the challenges a new team faces in its first year and how Oklahoma City’s front office “checks all the boxes”? That meant something. His ironclad relationship with Westbrook? That mattered. A Southern California address and a purple and gold jersey? Turns out, that didn’t.
What a day for Oklahoma City. The Thunder get one of the NBA’s best two-way players locked in for at least the next three seasons, while avoiding the catastrophic loss of a third All-NBA-level player in the last five years … and also avoiding potentially a difficult conversation with a fourth star. When Oklahoma City inked Westbrook to a five-year, $205 million extension last summer, there was an understanding between the two sides that if the team ever had to go into an extended rebuild, and if Westbrook didn’t want any part of it, the Thunder would work with him on a trade.
Instead, they will work with him on building a title contender.
It’s Westbrook and George now, with GM Sam Presti tweaking the roster around them and the threat of franchise armageddon pushed into the next decade. Eyebrows were raised when George passed on the one-plus-one deal Kevin Durant and LeBron James have been signing, heads scratched when George didn’t give himself an out after two years, when he would reach the coveted 10 years of service. But understand this: George is four years removed from seeing a bone in his leg tear through his flesh. For some players, security matters.
The Lakers have a handful of young players, and LeBron James on the hook … and they couldn’t even get a meeting with George. L.A. was arrogant last summer, refusing to include anything significant in trade talks with Indiana, believing George would walk to them this offseason. Instead, the team that was bold was rewarded, the GM with the proven track record chosen, the star George spent a year getting to know chosen over the possibility of playing with one he didn’t.
There will be social media snickering that Oklahoma City merely brought back together a first-round-and-out band, that the Thunder weren’t good enough to beat Utah last season, much less Golden State. But the Western Conference landscape could change quickly. James hasn’t committed to L.A. yet, Kawhi Leonard could go East and even the Warriors could be showing cracks in the foundation. Durant’s deal with Golden State was interesting, if only because it puts him on the free-agent market again next summer, when everyone will have cap space and opportunities to team up with other top-tier players will abound. The decision sparked immediate chatter that Durant, forever sensitive to the (false) narrative that he simply hopped on Stephen Curry’s bandwagon, will pocket his third ring next season and look elsewhere.
The Thunder are in play now, a franchise on the rise instead of one on the brink of irrelevance, a force instead of a failure. There is plenty still to figure out in Oklahoma City, like if Carmelo Anthony is worth keeping, if the bench has enough shooting and just how much more money ownership — which is already facing a $130 million luxury tax bill — is willing to spend. And George and Westbrook have to play better together.
But those are matters for another day. For now, they celebrate. Late Saturday night, George took to Instagram, posting a picture of he and Westbrook chewing on cigars, “Unfinished business” the only caption. Two players with deep-rooted Los Angeles ties and opportunities to play there have chosen to call oil country home. The sting of trading James Harden, of losing Durant will never truly disappear, but George’s decision has given a rabid fan base hope for the future. A team that has risen and fallen this decade will have the chance to rise again.
Unfinished business, indeed.
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